A mainland law firm will continue to represent the city of Honolulu to protect possible privileged material among documents and emails seized by federal investigators in a January search warrant.

The Honolulu City Council on Wednesday agreed to pay the firm as much as $225,000 even as the public has been left in the dark about what records were taken or the nature of the investigation. Two council members, however, voted against the continued payments, with one citing concerns about paying “hefty fees” to outside attorneys.

Councilman Ron Menor said last week that the San Francisco-based law firm Farella Braun & Martel was hired to shield information that may be “protected by the attorney-client work product privileges and potentially the right to privacy.”

The councilman, who was briefed on the matter by the corporation counsel’s office, said he could not recall the scope of the search warrant, including the names of employees whose emails were sought.

Civil Beat contacted the offices of all other council members, but none shared any information about the seized records. Members discussed funding Farella Braun & Martel during executive sessions, which are closed to the public.

“As a general rule, Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson does not discuss executive matter proceedings with anyone – not even his staff,” said Council Communications Director Louise Kim McCoy. “Executive sessions are intended to be confidential and privileged, which is why the public is not allowed to participate.”

Honolulu City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson Bill 89 85.
Honolulu City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson does not discuss executive sessions, according to a spokesperson. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The silence has frustrated some residents.

“Enough already. You need to stop enabling the administration wanting to keep everything secret,” Chinatown resident Lynne Matusow wrote the council. “What is the administration afraid of? That they will be caught?”

Matusow told the city to use its staff lawyers or “quit fighting.”

“This is just another waste of money and abuse of power,” she wrote.

Another critic, Natalie Iwasa, testified against the payments at Wednesday’s meeting.

“If somebody is using government email for private and personal information, they shouldn’t be doing that,” she said. “And we shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to provide this go-between for criminal investigation and trying to somehow protect and control the message of what is given to investigators of whatever this case is – the public doesn’t know.”

In March, council members passed an initial authorization to retain the law firm, with all council members who were present approving the expenditure of $100,000. Ikaika Anderson and Ron Menor were absent.

On Wednesday, Councilman Tommy Waters voted yes “with reservations.” Council members Kymberly Pine and Heidi Tsuneyoshi voted no.

Tsuneyoshi questioned the “hefty fees” to outside attorneys and whether the cost would continue to escalate.

The measure passed 7-2.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author